Climate science started on mountaintops. John Tyndall was a mid-19th-century British scientist and devoted mountaineer who scaled several Continental peaks, making the first recorded trip up Switzerland’s Weisshorn. He sketched out the glaciers he saw there, and how they moved. By 1859, he’d become the first European to demonstrate that carbon dioxide absorbs heat.
Another extraordinary mountain expedition posing big climate science questions occurred last year, to Mount Everest. For two months, 34 scientists (along with sherpas and aides) turned the top of the world into a scientific laboratory. The results were published in 16 papers last week in the journal One Earth.
In a welcome turn from conventional science publishing, the collection self-consciously tells a powerful, resonating story of change at the world’s tallest peak, the reasons why it’s happening, the people affected by it, and what to do about it. The Himalayas are commonly called the “Third Pole” — the first and second being the North and South ones — because of the scale of the ice there. The human implications are enormous, as 1.65 billion people live close enough to the Hindu Kush Himalaya system to be affected by changes to it, and 240 million live within the area.
The research runs the spectrum. Declassified aerial spy photography from as long ago as 1962 and later satellite images provided evidence that 79 glaciers around Mount Everest have been losing ice at an accelerating rate, thinning as much as 250 vertical feet (76 meters) in parts of the Khumbu Glacier, which leads to the Everest Base Camps. Tourists to Everest have created a garbage problem for Nepal in recent years; a new study reveals tiny plastic fibers from hiking gear and clothing littering snow. Studies catalog risks of glacial lakes bursting, landslides, and meltwater contaminated by chemicals or the biological waste hikers leave behind. In an odd twist, the warming atmosphere may add a little more oxygen sometimes to the famously thin air, possibly making it a little easier to climb.
The trek was sponsored by National Geographic Society and Rolex, the first major expedition in their Perpetual Planet research and education initiative. For the Everest project, the organizations marshaled a kind of scientific special ops team, dozens of people and thousands of pounds of equipment — with a key difference that actual special ops teams don’t have to figure out how to fly commercial, with “the usual cabin and checked-luggage restrictions applied,” according to a behind-the-scenes article. It was a “symphony of movement (that) had to be executed with precision and boldness combined with a drive for exploration and a touch of audacity,” write several of expedition’s lead scientists in the same article.
A thought-provoking commentary in the One Earth issue calls out professional science for something even more serious than abandoning the Tyndall-like spirit of genteel exploration: It’s also largely abandoned collaborative problem-solving.
Hemant Ojha, adjunct associate professor at the University of Canberra, provides evidence of the effects — sometimes fatal — of “narrowly construed science-based advice” that’s so separated from the society it serves that it fails to trigger policy changes, consequently leading to tragedy. It did this summer, he writes. Biophysicists with expertise in the region had predicted a landslide would occur in a district in north-central Nepal, and recommended that people relocate — without exploring social or policy dimensions needed to make it happen. Relocation didn’t happen. The landslide came, destroyed a village, and killed 40 people. Ojha’s essay focuses on the Himalayan region and how the science that people need must be a joint-venture between researchers and communities.
Ojha’s criticisms of Himalayan science, and his solutions to make it more productive, resonate with issues at the heart of global climate science, which has delivered science of, in many ways, historically unparalleled quantity and quality, for four decades, with as little harmonized global policy to show for it. “It is wrong to assume that you can do great science that can automatically be translated into decisions and practice,” Ojha said by email.
“Almost all of academic work loves asking ‘why,’ but hardly engages with ‘how’ questions,” he said. Policymakers, on the other hand, often focus too much on tools and methods to ask “why?” Instead, what’s needed is a new approach, “wherein we define knowledge that thrives in the community of practice and not just in academic papers.”
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